Thursday, March 21, 1996

Undertakers of Athy

Undertakers. Have you ever wondered how such an inappropriate name was first applied to a group whose job is to dispose of the dead. Nowadays they are known, not by the simple appellation but by the more stately sounding Funeral Directors. They perform a most trying job and one which up to not so long ago was performed by the community at large.

In the past friends and neighbours of the deceased carried the coffin, dug the grave and carried out the burial services without the assistance of an undertaker or Priest. This was the way of the countryside up to 100 years ago and with the dawn of this century formal funeral undertaking came to the fore. One of the earliest undertakers in Athy was Mrs. Maher, grandmother of Bapty Maher who in time carried on the business from the rear of his public house in Leinster Street. Many are the stories told of late night imbibers of liquid nourishment who sought to conceal themselves in the empty coffins at the back of Bapty's when the local Gardai were so inconsiderate as to make a late night call to the premises.

Joseph Rigney started up his undertakers business in Blackparks just after the ending of World War I. Today the business is being carried on by Joe Rigney, his grandson. In the early years coffins were made locally. Initially Blanchfields of Leinster Street met the requirements of all the local undertakers but in time Rigneys made their own until it was no longer an economic proposition to do so on a regular basis. However, Martin Joe Rigney, son of the founder of the firm who served his time as a coffin maker, still turns out an occasional coffin on request.

The cost of a funeral in 1919 understandably bears little comparison to today's cost. For a five pound note you could then have an oak coffin and a horse and hearse to bring you on your last journey. Ten shillings less gave you an elm coffin. Society funerals, as they were then called, justified the use of plumes on the horses, black for adults, white for young persons or single ladies. They continued in use until the early 1930's when to the undoubted relief of the horses the plumes were put away for the last time. Although they presented an imposing sight as the funeral cortege winded its way through the streets of the town the plumes were heavy and were consequently disliked by the horses.

A hearse pulled by horses was believed to have been first used in Athy by Mrs. Maher and the tradition continued up to 1936 when the first motorised hearse appeared on the streets. The petrol scarcity experienced during World War II limited the local undertakers to a twenty mile radius from their home basis and in 1940 led to the re-introduction of the horse drawn hearse. Indeed horses remained an important mode of transport for local funerals up to 1950. The difficulties of the War years can be gauged from the experience of Rigneys who used up three months petrol rations in journeying to Dublin for a local nun who died in Hospital. There was nothing to do but to garage the motor hearse until the petrol coupons again became available.

During the late 1930's there were three funeral undertakers in Athy. Mahers of Leinster Street, Rigneys of Blackparks and Tommy Stynes who had just started up business in Leinster Street. Today the only undertakers in Athy are Rigneys who have provided a funeral home in Bennetsbridge.

One of the endearing features of ceremonies surrounding the dead in the not too distant past was the Wake. No funeral homes then to receive the mortal remains. Instead the body was kept in the home overnight and an open house was kept while the neighbours and friends talked and comforted the relations throughout the long day and night before the removal to the Church. Much has been written of the Irish custom of waking the dead and Sean O'Suillabhain wrote an engaging book on the subject "Irish Wake Amusements" some years ago. In it he recounted the story telling, dancing, card playing and "horse playing" which was all part of Irish Wakes up to the last century. Clerical opposition to some of these practices resulted in Bishops forbidding unmarried men or women from attending wakes from sunset to sunrise under pain of mortal sin. As late as 1927 the Synod of Maynooth forbade the holding of unchristian and unseemly wakes "at which the corpse was present". Presumably if the corpse was put outside you could enjoy yourself without fear of clerical censure!

Bringing the dead to the local Catholic Church was not a straight-forward matter even up to 46 years ago. One had to pay thirty shillings to bring the dead person inside the door of the Church and if you had enough money to pay for a sung Mass the corpse was allowed to rest before the Altar. If you were unable to pay the appropriate fee then the corpse went directly from the house to the Graveyard without the benefit of clergy but with the local Sacristan James McNally who said the De Profunds at every crossroads on the way to St. Michael's. This was the origin of the custom whereby the hearses today stop at the corner of Emily Square on their way to the local cemetery.

It was Fr. John McLoughlin of fond memory who put an end to this practice and from 1950 onwards every dead person was brought to the Church. It took a little longer to effect a change in the practice whereby the poor dead of the County Home were buried without the attendance of clergy. Instead a box of clay blessed by a Priest was available and a handful of the clay was thrown onto the coffin after it was put into the grave. It was Tom Carbery, a local Councillor, then living in St. Martin's Terrace who at a local Council meeting raised this issue which so scandalised many that thereafter a Catholic curate was available for all burials.


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